Redemption. Unprecedented. Historic.
There’s no one word to describe Team USA’s men’s curling victory in the gold medal game Saturday morning.
For a team in a sport that is known for yelling, the victory left John Shuster, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner speechless.
“It's too surreal to even think about right now,” said George, the team’s third and vice-skip. “I think it's going to hit harder tomorrow but I keep waiting to wake up. I’ve not been emotional because it's just shock. To go from where we were a few days ago… the emotions, they’re bottled up and they’re building but it’s going to be a little bit before they come out.”
Emotions were understandable. Winning Olympic gold will always bring that out in an athlete, but it’s probably more special when that win has history behind it. In five previous Winter Games in which curling has been contested, the U.S. has never won gold. Or silver. Only one bronze.
Shuster was a member of that bronze medal winning team in 2006. His story has become well documented. After the 2006 Games, he skipped the U.S. team in two consecutive Olympics. He was unsuccessful, to say the least.
Team USA finished at or near the bottom of the standings in both Games. After returning from Sochi in 2014, USA Curling created the High Performance Program in hopes of building curling in the states to an international power.
Shuster was initially not invited.
The irony of Saturday’s win is that USA Curling seemingly wanted to cut ties with Shuster so they could create a team on their own to beat the international heavyweights, and the first time the U.S. was able to do that in an Olympics was with Shuster at the helm.
“For me and John… This time around we were able to show them what we’re capable of and we’re really proud of that,” said Landsteiner, the team’s lead who was also on the 2014 Olympic team. “And this team, I’m just proud of what we have all done. We’ve put in so much work together the last four years and we’ve been able to peak at the right time obviously. So I can’t imagine it means any more than the world to any of us.”
It took a while for Team USA to find its peak in these games. They won their first game against Korea, then fell hard in their next two, 10-9 to Italy and 10-4 to Sweden.
After defeating Denmark in Game 4, the U.S. again had two straight losses, 8-2 to Japan and 8-4 to Norway. Three of their four losses were against teams that did make it to the semifinals.
Defensively they struggled, allowing three ends of three points, one of four and one of five. They gave up 48 points while only scoring 39.
In order to make the playoffs, the U.S. would have to go unbeaten against 3-time defending gold medalists Canada, World bronze medalists Switzerland, and defending Olympic silver medalists Great Britain.
"On the morning of February 19, Matt's (Hamilton) birthday, the day we played Canada, I woke up saw it and said 'I have a choice. I have a choice to rewrite my story, to write the story of this team," Shuster said. "That we put the work in and I wasn't going to let any thought in my head or any of that stuff get the in way of the story of this team... they deserve to have the skip who helped them get here and I'm glad I showed up."
In their final five games, through round robin play and the two playoff games, the U.S. never allowed more than two points in a single end. They outscored opponents 42-25. But more importantly, they played loose, and seemingly without any pressure – surprising given every game was a must win.
"We've played our best when our backs were up against the wall,” George said. “We took it to another level this week. Usually we're fighting and scrapping to get into the playoffs but for five days we were the best team in the world and we did it at the right time.
"We always knew we had it in us, but to do it when it matters most is what I'm most proud of overall."
Just making into the playoffs, with five teams fighting for two semifinal spots, and 16 different scenarios for what would happen on the last day of round robin play, that was more than just surprising. To defeat the best teams in the world on the way there was unprecedented.
“I'm proud of everybody here,” George said. “Just to get to a point where we felt like those types of things were automatic as opposed to fighting it all week, we were just so comfortable. We were talking before the game, we were laughing in the locker room, we're smiling, nobody was tight. We all said 'we belong here.' we were comfortable because we said 'this is our moment' and we went out and owned it tonight.”
Now Team USA will return home to Minnesota and Wisconsin with gold around their necks. More than that, they’ve gained fans along the way. Yes, there are the celebrities – J.J. Watt and Diddy tweeted their good lucks before the game, and Mr. T even called the team and told them he’s their “biggest fan” – but the U.S. as a whole has caught on.
On Twitter, #curling was the top trend on the U.S., and “Shuster” was second during the game. This was a game played at 1:30 a.m. EST, not exactly prime sports watching hour.
Curling clubs across the country are seeing increased interest like never before. One Curling Club member in Massachusetts tweeted to the official Team Shuster Twitter handle Saturday saying “We taught 40 people tonight have 200+ people signed up for Curl-a-palooza tomorrow morning.”
For a sport that just four years ago was at risk of losing financial support by the U.S. Olympic Committee, they could see an influx of athletes, young athletes, all hoping to be the next Shuster or Hamilton.
While this gold medal may be the first for the U.S., with so much new interest in the sport it very likely won’t be the last.
“We knew so many friends and people in the stands. Some of the U.S. women’s hockey team that just won gold was in the stands, they’ve been cheering us on all week,” Hamilton said. “It just felt really great to share that moment with our family and our friends and to really be able to shine.”
While members of Shuster’s team may have been speechless Saturday night in PyeongChang, there will undoubtedly be many, many words written about them for years to come.
“It's incredible. I’ve told so many people that in 2006 when we stood on the podium and got our bronze medals it was one of the proudest moments of my life, but seeing somebody else standing on top and hearing another national anthem playing was really the fuel for everything for doing what I personally do and it was everything that I thought it might be and maybe a little bit more,” Shuster said.
"It's unbelievable, this whole last four years,” Hamilton said. “Just being on the cusp at the world championships. Getting bronze one year, coming fourth and fifth the other two years. We knew we were close, and to make the breakthrough here at the Olympics is just amazing."